When pet Lila wasn't getting as much playtime as the other two animals in her Plymouth, Mass., home, owner Genie Boutchia felt guilty. Then when a potential new owner came calling with $850 in hand, Ms. Boutchia felt even guiltier. She changed her mind and deemed Lila not for sale.
Such feelings of moral responsibility might seem normal, even admirable, in a dog owner. But Lila is not a real dog. She's a robot.
And like tens of thousands like her in homes from Houston to Hong Kong, she's provoking fresh questions about who deserves moral treatment and respect.
How should people treat creatures that seem ever more emotional with each step forward in robotic technology, but who really have no feelings?
"Intellectually, you realize they don't have feelings, but you do imbue them with personality over time, so you are protective of them," Boutchia says. "You feel guilty when you play with the other two dogs [which, as newer models, are more apparently emotive], even though you know Lila could care less."
Trouble is, Lila seems to care, and her newer kin seem to care even more.
Sony Corp. has brought the latest robotic engineering technology to bear on the new Aibo ERS-7, which at $1,599 promises to have six emotions: happiness, anger, fear, sadness, surprise, and discontent. Pat one on the head, and it becomes happy enough to do tricks. Whack its nose, and it not only appears hurt, but it also learns not to repeat certain behavior.
Aibo's "feelings" appear real enough that researchers at the University of Washington felt compelled to explain in a study that, contrary to Sony's claim, Aibo does not have any true emotions.
If Aibo did have true emotions and self-awareness, philosophers generally agree, then it would require humane treatment.
But as machines, robotic pets with sad eyes can nevertheless be legitimately neglected, a fact that some people find troubling, while others welcome both in its practicality and moral significance.